Gone without trace by Quentin Bates

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It takes something like this to remind us that Iceland is right at the edge of the habitable part of our planet. A couple of weeks ago a Swedish tourist went for a drive in a the country, presumably got out to take some pictures and was unable to find his way back to the shelter of his hired car.

He was able to make a phone call to the emergency services, but by the time he was found, the unfortunate traveller was already dead of exposure. By that time, three hundred or so dedicated volunteers had spent the best part of a day and a night searching.

Iceland has some volunteer rescue teams who are well equipped, well trained and who jump into action as soon as they are needed, while whole communities also swing into gear to feed, clothe and house the rescue teams while the searches are in progress. They have been responsible for some remarkable rescues over the years, as often as not involving bewildered travellers who have been taken unawares by a car that won’t start or changes in the weather that can take you by surprise in a matter of minutes.

The unlucky Swede, like so many others, presumably assumed that as the mountainous region around Eyjafjallajökull and Fimmvörduháls (yes, the bubbling volcanic area that grounded flights across the northern hemisphere a year or two ago) is a fairly easy hour’s drive from the comforts of Reykjavík as well as in mobile phone range, the region is safe and populated. Not so.

Every year there are a few people who get into trouble in the highlands, the majority of them foreign tourists, but as often as not, it’s a local who comes unstuck. Cars run out of fuel on lonely roads where filling stations can be a very long way apart, people go to seek help and don’t find it while there’s no mobile signal or the battery in their phone goes flat. There are instances of people not knowing where they are and calling for help that leads to a search concentrating on an area miles from where they’re gradually shivering into unconsciousness.

Unprepared urbanites who generally prefer not to venture beyond the civilisation of Reykjavík’s city limits are as vulnerable as anyone else on a cold, dark night and hypothermia can set in very quickly, initially robbing the sufferer of the ability to think straight, and by that time it’s often too late.

Then there are the people who simply disappear with few traces to point to what has actually happened to them. There are more than likely a good few sets of forsaken bones lying in obscure valleys or next to roads that hardly see more than a dozen cars from one year to the next.

Now the Icelandic government has pledged to put something like €130,000 into developing an emergency locating system for foreign mobile phones that are logged into the local mobile networks and to set up a working group to look at safety issues facing tourists who often aren’t aware of the hazards they can face a few hundred metres away from a main road.

Disappearances in the past were generally attributed to the activities of the myriad trolls, ghosts and the hidden people who reputedly stole people away for their own ends.

In reality, who knows? It seems more than likely the shepherd who didn’t come home was caught out by a sudden squall of snow or suffered a simple accident that wouldn’t be life-threatening if it had happened close to home, rather than being fortunate enough to be spirited away, made to live under a mountain and marry an elf king’s daughter.

On the other hand, there are things that happen not all that far from the tarmac and the national power supply that defy explanation.

More recently there are people who have gone off the radar for no discernible reason. The efforts of the rescue teams are normally enough to find people who have managed to get lost if there’s an indication of roughly where they are. But in cases where the person’s disappearance is not noticed quickly, or if nobody knows in which direction they went, the chances of rescue are slim to zero. It’s not a big country but the population is small and thinly distributed outside towns. There are plenty of wide open spaces and pitfalls for the unwary – or for those who have no intention of being found.

The one that crops up repeatedly is the Gudmundur and Geirfinnur case that I’ve written about here before. With no bodies, no evidence and precious little motive, the disappearances of these two men in separate incidents could easily be accidental rather than murder.

Roughly one person a year has disappeared in Iceland over the past four decades, all men to date and each one remains an open case for the Icelandic police until evidence of what befell them comes to light. This includes a hapless Italian tourist who was reported to have simply gone for a walk one day thirty years ago and never came back.

But sitting in a warm house with the lights on, it’s too much of a stretch of the imagination to believe that any of them were taken by the trolls or the hidden people. Outside on a dark night with the wind howling, it’s not difficult to think otherwise.

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